How Memorialization Shapes History and Tourism

As I have begun writing the chapter on memorialization of the overland trails, I am struck by the connections this chapter has to others in the report. How people have commemorated, designated, wrote about, and toured sites along the overland trail have had a direct correlation to the national political, cultural, and social context of the time and have consequently influenced, either for good or ill, how the trails have been studied and remembered ever since. The history of the nineteenth century overland migrations themselves, as Nic Gunvaldson and I explore in our chapters on the migrations, obviously formed the cornerstone for memorialization efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The role of Scotts Bluff National Monument in the memorialization and commemoration process has much to do with its formation as a local landmark and subsequent development within the neighboring communities, as Doug Sheflin’s chapter on town and park relationships will demonstrate. Memorialization of the overland trail has privileged a white, Anglo-Saxon narrative that ignores or over-simplifies the rich and diverse Native American connections to the trail landscape and the Scotts Bluff region, past and present, as Andrew Cabrall is exploring in his two chapters on the Native American experience.

One of my earlier chapters written for this project involved a look at mobility in Nebraska and the Scotts Bluff area in particular, as people have moved about in the region from the 1860s to the present in search of land, industry, opportunity, and tourist experiences. The team has decided that because of the overlap between this chapter and others that will be part of the final report, my research for the mobility chapter will instead be folded into other appropriate sections of the finished document. It seemed to make sense to incorporate the tourism sections of the mobility chapter into my current chapter on memorialization. At first, I was unsure how strong the connections would be. As I have begun writing, however, I have noticed how well the two correlate. Memorialization of the overland trails and of Scotts Bluff National Monument has not just been about marker dedications, speeches, pageantry, and anniversary events. Memorialization is also part of the day-to-day, annual routines of how and why Americans remember, read about, visit, and explore sites connected to their nation’s past. The desire to increase tourism, and thus economic development, was a major reason why local residents of Scottsbluff and Gering pushed to get Scotts Bluff designated as a national monument. Tourism is both an economic driver and a vehicle for popular memory. When tourists visit historic sites, they bring to the table a host of preconditioned values, beliefs, assumptions, and motivations, often colored by the cultural and social forces at work in their nation at that time. Many tourists believe that it is important to visit historic sites in order to gain an appreciation for their nation’s past, or to inculcate patriotism or a particular set of values in the lives of their children. Consequently, tourism is an important element of memorialization. However, tourists are not merely passive consumers of information who seek edutainment. They can, and many do, play an active role in how Americans continue to shape our understanding and commemoration of historic events. Many parents, including my own, have dragged many a young child along to a host of historic sites during the family summer vacation. In the process, many of those children, like me, have discovered a passion for the history of places that eventually turned into a career of helping to interpret and document that history for others. And most of us still enjoy touring the sites that are important to our nation’s heritage.

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Retracing the Overland Trail in the Twentieth Century

One of the most interesting things in my research has been discovering how many people have written driving guides on the Oregon Trail. One of the earliest seems to be one produced by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939, which provides step-by-step directions, mileage, and landmarks. Other driving guides are more personal, giving not only detailed information about following in the footsteps of the pioneers but also how the writer felt about the trip and their observations into the past. Ezra Meeker, himself a pioneer, was probably the first to do this when he published a version of the diary he kept when retracing the Oregon Trail in 1906. One of the people who followed Meeker’s lead was Irene Paden, who published The Wake of the Prairie Schooner in 1944 as a compilation of her family’s decade of travels back and forth along various routes of the overland trails.

What is unique about these part driving guide, part personal memoir books is their demonstration of how ordinary people, who were trail enthusiasts but not necessarily history buffs, were memorializing the overland trails in their own way. Most did not recreate the trip with strict historical accuracy; people like the Padens drove automobiles, stayed in hotels, and ate at restaurants along the way. Instead, their focus on authenticity was through following the historic route as closely as possible. Some, like the Padens, even drove their automobiles in the ruts of the historic trail!

As they traveled, people like the Padens often viewed history from their lens of comfortable twentieth century life. They read overland diaries and journals and amassed enormous collections of material, but struggled to lay their modern biases aside so they could attempt to understand the experiences of the overland migrants from a nineteenth century perspective. It was through the musings of these twentieth century trail enthusiasts that historians begin to see how some of the myths of overland migration crept into how the history of the era has been told ever since. For example, Irene Paden zeroed in on any mention she ever found in diaries of interactions with Native Americans. Although we know now that most emigrants likely did not encounter Native Americans on the trail, and if they did, that these encounters were usually friendly or at least distant, Paden prioritizes accounts that focus on massacres, hostility, and the warring nature of the Plains tribes. She stereotypes Native Americans as dirty, ugly, primitive, brutal, and war-like. Because of her writing and that of many of her contemporaries in the first half of the twentieth century, many people have erroneously over-exaggerated migrant interactions with Native Americans.

Other biases that have crept in to the writing of these individuals includes a monolithic focus on the people traveling overland, relatively little attention to Mormon emigrants, and an over-generalization that the migrants to Oregon were white families seeking land and homes and migrants to California were white single men seeking wealth. Later scholarship has proved many of these claims false, but the way people have remembered and memorialized the overland trail continues to emphasize many elements like these. Consequently, my goal with the memorialization chapter is to reveal how we have portrayed the overland migration over time, discuss how myths have crept into the history, and provide a directive for a new interpretation of overland migration.